Saturday, September 23, 2006

Masters of Animation: Friz Freleng

Isadore Freleng was born in Kansas City in the year 1904. As it turned out, an early hub of animation was located in his hometown, and upon graduating high school in 1923, the young man people called Friz got a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Another man who worked there, Walt Disney, had recently left to branch out on his own; his colleagues Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Bugs Hardaway were still around to train the young man, and Harman in particular took a great liking to Freleng. Friz had no real background in art, but he showed a seemingly innate ability for cartooning.

Both Iwerks and Harman eventually left Kansas City to join Disney, animating the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Alice Comedies series. On Harman’s recommendation, Disney hired Friz, who was assigned to work with Harman and Rudy Ising. In 1928, when Charles Mintz took the Oswald character away from Disney and hired away most of his staff, Harman and Ising took Friz with them. But when Carl Laemmle took Oswald away from Mintz and gave the character to Walter Lantz, everyone was out of work. Friz got a job with Columbia Pictures working on the Krazy Kat series, but Hugh Harman hadn’t forgotten his friend. In 1929, Leon Schlesinger was contracted to provide animated cartoons to Warner Bros; he contracted Harman-Ising Studios, and Freleng was one of their first hires. Friz Freleng found himself animating Looney Tunes starring Bosko; with Bosko in Dutch (1933), he began directing.

When Harman and Schlesinger had their falling out in 1933, Freleng was one of the animators (as were Bob Clampett and Bob McKimson) who stayed behind to join Schlesinger’s new, hastily-built outfit. Freleng stays in his capacity as animation director. Harman and Ising owned Bosko, so Schlesinger asked Freleng to create a new character: Buddy. Buddy was unpopular with audiences as well as the animators; he was nothing more than a thin rip-off of Bosko, who himself could be seen (and has by some) as a think rip-off of Mickey Mouse. Freleng also introduced the studio’s first major star, Porky Pig, in the short I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935), which also introduced the cat Beans and the dogs Ham and Ex (none of those characters hit with audiences). But Freleng preferred to work instead on musical shorts, and became the director of the Merrie Melodies instead. This way, Friz didn’t have to worry about character or plot; instead, he had to worry about music and gags, which seemed more fun to him anyway.

After directing Clean Pastures (1937), a religious burlesque that is one of the classic early Warner Bros cartoons, Freleng decided to leave Schlesinger to work at MGM for Fred Quimby’s animation department. There wasn’t a case of dissatisfaction with Schlesinger or his studio (although one can point to several examples of people quitting Schlesinger in the thirties); Quimby simply offered more money and artistic freedom. Said artistic freedom, however, turned out to be a carrot to lure Freleng; immediately, he was assigned to a new series called The Captain and the Kids, which was merely the umpteenth version of The Katzenjammer Kids. Freleng’s 15 MGM shorts are certainly not bad cartoons, however, and MGM did provide him with a sort of training ground that allowed him to improve his technique. In 1939 Friz returned to Schlesinger.

Freleng was undeniably one of the great Warner Bros directors. At least the Academy Awards started to think so; he was nominated for an Oscar in 1941 for his short Rhapsody in Rivets. Friz had continued to work on musical shorts and burlesques such as Pigs in a Polka (1943) for a while instead of working with characters. Not that Friz didn’t help to create some other classic Warner Bros characters. For example, in 1945 Friz directed Hare Trigger, which is the first real appearance of Yosemite Sam. The character had been used previously, but it was Friz who developed his personality and made him a great foil for Bugs (or is that the other way around?). The character is actually an homage to Freleng; the man himself was short, had a red moustache, and had a loud, explosive temper. Exaggerated to a certain degree, of course.

Also in 1945, Freleng created Sylvester the Cat. In his cartoon Life with Feathers, we are introduced to a cat that will do anything to catch and eat a bird. The character seemed destined as a one-off, but Friz had the idea to team Sylvester up with Tweety, a character Bob Clampett had created. Tweety was a likable character that the audience already seemed to love; Clampett wanted to keep using Tweety, but Tweety was funny because he was a reactive character; to be the star of a series, he had to be a proactive one, which would change the happy-go-lucky nature of the character too much. Clampett and Freleng plotted out a cartoon that paired Sylvester and Tweety called Tweetie Pie (1947). Friz directed the cartoon and won an Oscar.

One of his best shorts ever is Rhapsody Rabbit (1946). Animation historians agree that the cartoon was robbed of an Oscar through a series of unfortunate circumstances. It seems Technicolor accidentally delivered Rhapsody Rabbit to MGM, where William Hanna and Joseph Barbera screened it out of professional curiosity. The cartoon shows Bugs Bunny trying to play a piano at a concert, but his efforts are frustratingly hampered by a troublemaking mouse. By some sort of cosmic coincidence, Hanna and Barbera were working on a similar cartoon, The Cat Concerto (1947), with Tom in place of Bugs and Jerry in place of the mouse. Once they returned Rhapsody Rabbit to its proper owners, Hanna and Barbera rushed production of the admittedly brilliant Cat Concerto in an attempt to get it in theaters first and avoid charges of imitation. They didn’t manage to pull that off, but by another cosmic coincidence, both cartoons were eligible for Oscar nomination in the same year! And because the cartoons were screened in alphabetical order, it looked to the nominating committee as if Rhapsody Rabbit were ripping off The Cat Concerto! And so Rhapsody Rabbit lost the nomination, while The Cat Concerto went on to win the Oscar.

But Friz did win the Oscar the next year for Tweetie Pie. One of his best talents, it seems, was in fleshing out characters that other people created. His Bugs Bunny, for example, was more urbane and witty than in other cartoons. His Sylvester and Tweety cartoons are nearly all prime hilarity; much more so than when people would team Sylvester with Hippety Hopper or Sylvester Jr. Freleng also tried to flesh out Speedy Gonzales, a character created by Robert McKimson who seemed to be going nowhere. Freleng paired Speedy with Sylvester in Speedy Gonzales (1955) and won a second Oscar for his trouble. Freleng won another Academy Award for the Sylvester and Tweety short Birds Anonymous in 1957 and a fourth for the classic Knighty Knight Bugs in 1958.

Warners made the decision to close down its animation department in 1962. Friz Freleng was the only animator who had worked for Schlesinger (with one brief absence) since the Harman-Ising days of 1929. Friz and some other animators ended up working on animated segments for the Don Knotts film The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) under former Disney man Bill Tytla. Freleng did some designs and storyboards, but left before the animation began, ending up at Hanna-Barbera, where he directed some episodes of Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear. But Friz was soon contacted by David DePatie, a Warner Bros executive who had the idea of leasing some of the studio’s now-unused animation facilities to start a new animation company. Friz came aboard, and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises was born.

In 1963, DePatie-Freleng’s first contract was to provide an animated title sequence for Blake Edwards’s rather overrated film The Pink Panther. The titles (and Henry Mancini’s ultra-cool theme) were the best parts of the film; both aspects proved popular, and as a result United Artists/Mirisch contracted DePatie-Freleng for a Pink Panther series of theatrical shorts. The series began with Freleng’s The Pink Phink (1964), for which Freleng won a fifth Oscar. The series lasted until 1977, and then moved to television for ABC’s The All New Pink Panther Show which did, indeed, feature new animation…that was later released theatrically. The Pink Panther shorts were the last great theatrical short cartoons, and proof that visual (not verbal) gags could triumph. They are also, interestingly, the polar opposite of the cartoons Freleng did at Warners; not frenetic and zany, but understated and witty.

Ironically, it only took a few months for Warner Bros to realize that they had been premature in their decision to give up on animation; they ended up contracting DePatie-Freleng to create new Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. But in 1969, Warner Bros abandoned animated theatrical shorts entirely. DePatie-Freleng became a very successful company. Besides The Pink Panther, they produced eight other series of shorts: The Ant and the Aardvark (starting with the 1969 short The Ant and the Aardvark, the last theatrical short cartoon that Freleng ever directed), The Blue Racer, Crazylegs Crane, The Dogfather, Hoot Kloot, The Inspector, Roland and Rattfink, and Tijuana Toads. They produced the animated television series The Super 6, Super President, Here Comes the Grump, Doctor Dolittle, The Barkleys, The Houndcats, Bailey’s Comets, The Oddball Couple, Return to the Planet of the Apes, and Baggy Pants & the Nitwits. And there were many animated specials, most of them Dr. Seuss related, and three of which won Emmys. DePatie-Freleng also produced the television series Fantastic Four and Spider-Woman, and were five episodes into Spider-Man when David DePatie sold the company to Marvel Comics. Most of the staff and crew remained at the new Marvel Productions Ltd, who continued the show as Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

Friz had decided to move on. In 1979, Warner Bros released a compilation movie featuring 15 cartoons called The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. Chuck Jones had directed new bridging material. It was enough of a success that Warners wanted to do it again, and Freleng was hired to create new material for Friz Freleng’s Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (1980). He did the same for Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales (1982) and Daffy Duck’s Movie: Fantastic Island (1983). And then he retired, living out his life in peace and dying on natural causes in 1995 at the age of 91.

Friz Freleng is still remembered as one of the luminaries of the art of animation. His colleagues thought very highly of him, leading Chuck Jones to once state: “He was a giant, in my best estimation, and it is hard to recognize a giant in your midst when he was only five foot four.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

Scholarships, Mestizo, and the Whites Who Cry Oppression

I see the decaying hand of neo-conservative traditionalism is still finding its way into the student editorials of the Northern Star. Ever notice how, as soon as white conservative Christians get back in power, they immediately go about acting like they’re the most persecuted people in the history of the world? I’m sorry, but when you run everything, you don’t get to cry oppression, alright?

Liz Stoever’s commentary from today’s paper celebrates the enaction of a plan that outlaws what she calls “racial favoritism in colleges and universities.” What she’s referring to is the fact that white students outnumber the so-called minorities on university campuses, which has led some schools to specifically accept a certain number of minorities among their registering students every year. And every year, some racist asshole comes along and whines that this Affirmative Action fallout is “reverse racism” (a phrase that implies whites are supposed to be racist, and anyone else who pulls out some prejudice is, for lack of a less appropriate word, uppity). Stoever whines that some colleges have “admitted minorities over whites simply because of race.” And she shows her total fucking ignorance of recent social history by calling this decades-old practice “this new discrimination issue” and claims it victimizes white people.

What Stoever seems especially focused on is the issue of scholarships. Yes, some schools (and other organizations) have created scholarships that are for minority students. Like all racists, Stoever goes to a lot of trouble to point out that she’s not against minority scholarships per se, she’s just against minority scholarships that allow minorities from “wealthy communities.” Yes, she gets that many minorities go to underfunded schools, and she’s all for those people getting scholarships. But, she says, so do some whites. Her incredibly racist solution is that minorities students “should have to prove they deserve” to be helped and aren’t just cheating the system.

Oh, you white people. You would be so amusing if your casually self-obsessed fairy tales weren’t so dangerous to society. And the fact that you uneducated twits so often believe them only adds to the danger. Every year I read this crap, usually written by someone who is having some financial trouble and is bitter that someone else might have gotten a scholarship just for being a little brown. And whites sure do hate it when the browner peoples of the earth get something handed to them when they aren’t even white. People writing editorial diatribes like this are always nattering on about how, to quote Stoever here, “as long as colleges are open to everyone, there shouldn’t be an issue.”

Yeah, it’s so hard to get into college, isn’t it? I think I graduated high school with something like a 2.3 GPA. I didn’t start university until I was 25, and I didn’t graduate until I was 30. But you know what the advantage of waiting was? When you’re 25, the state of Illinois doesn’t consider you a dependent of your parents anymore. So I just had to apply for some grants, loans, and scholarships, and that was the end of that. They threw money at me for five years; enough so that I didn’t have to work the whole time I was in school. I haven’t had a job since the summer of 2001.

Stoever, like a true apologist/proponent of racism, says “poor people exist in all races.” And yes, they certainly do. I know, I’m one of them. But I don’t think “colleges are giving minority students a better chance than whites [emphasis mine] so they are ethnically diverse.” I’m grateful for the help I received from Financial Aid. I’m not going to turn around and claim that I could have gotten more if only a bunch of black kids didn’t want to get some higher education so damn bad. You know why? Because I’m not a fucking idiot who thinks that white people are culturally disadvantaged, that’s why. I’m not a complete idiot. I have a higher education.

Stoever still can’t get over the scholarship issue, seething: “There are still many scholarships available only to minority students. Just because minority enrollment has decreased doesn’t mean minorities should receive special scholarship opportunities.”

Huh? Is she actually claiming that there should be no scholarship opportunities that are open only to minorities? I wonder if the decidedly female Liz Stoever also thinks that it’s unfair that there are some scholarships that are only available to women. Shouldn’t men be able to compete for those too? And what about scholarships that are only available to writers? Or photographers? Or artists? Or people who are majoring in dental hygiene, or in physics, or in kinesiology, or in journalism? Shouldn’t Playboy magazine offer a scholarship that anyone can claim, rather than just people who want to be a journalist or a photographer and one day work for Playboy? Or should they just give money to the first person who comes along begging for it?

What kind of numbskull thinking is this? Liz Stoever is basically whining that she should be able to go to whomever she wants and get money to go to school just because, you know, she wants it really bad. “Me wantee!” The rallying cry of her entire generation.

Here’s a question: what does she think Hispanic students are supposed to do? There’s a fuckwit type of non-thinking that is still very prevalent in society which assumes that race is a valid biological concept, which any rational, scientific, or, I don’t know, smart person could tell you is total bullshit. Caucasian, Negro, Polynesian; these are not different “races” of a human being. There’s only one race. What we do have, however, is different ethnicities. Many people are amazed to discover that race and ethnicity are two different things. Ethnicity refers to one’s cultural background, not to something as arbitrary as whether or not one has more melanin than carotene in one’s skin pigmentation. When the term Hispanic is used, it refers to a certain type of historical background (that is, the Spanish influence in the Americas during the time of exploration, or mestizo, which refers to those countries whose biological alterations were caused by Spanish explorers having wanted or unwanted children with Amerindians five hundred or so years ago) and a certain type of Latin American culture. The biology—and, for that matter, the culture—of Hispanic people is as diverse as that of the people who describe themselves as American. And a lot of people we would typically call Hispanic don’t even trace their ancestry back to Spain; many can trace their ancestry back to other European countries or Middle Eastern countries or Asian countries. In the 2000 census, most Hispanics identified themselves as being white or “some other race.”

What all that pseudohistoric and pseudoscientific bullshit is getting at is the following statement: Hispanics are a very diverse “minority.” Their ancestry and biology is a mix of Asian, European, black, white, etc, etc. On polls, have you noticed how often you see the question “Do you consider yourself of Hispanic or non-Hispanic origin”? It’s because sociologists and the people who gather, collect, and analyze demographic data no longer consider the catch-all term Hispanic to be indicative of a separate race. It’s an ethnicity; a cultural distinction, not a racial one.

So, does Cameron Diaz get to apply for a minority scholarship, or is she “white enough” to be discriminated against? I mean according to Liz Stoever’s non-scientific theory of social discrimination against history’s punching bag, the white person?

And during Hispanic Heritage Month too. Shame, Liz Stoever. Shame.

Throwdown 9/22

15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. So Britney had her baby. Another boy, Sutton Pierce. Isn’t it weird/white trashy that the initials of both of Britney’s kids are SPF? Anyway, this means she’ll soon lose all of that weight that was making her so juicy and curvy. Ah, Britney, I love you anyways.

2. A cop busted Willie Nelson for pot possession? Wow, was he new? Did he just want to do something easier than, like, busting a cat for jaywalking? Who arrests Willie Nelson for marijuana possession? Well done, Officer Obvious.

3. Re: the title of Fergie’s unnecessary album. The Dutchess? So, does she know that it’s not spelled correctly? Does she just think it’s cool to be illiterate, like so many people involved in radio-friendly hip hop? Or is she supposed to be, like, a female Hollander? Is a Dutchess the female derivative of a Dutchman? Hmm, maybe she’s just stupid. Yeah, I’m going to go with that one.

4. How the fuck does Aaron Carter pull this? The ladyboy loved by 56 year-old men in closets (seriously, look at his albums, it’s like he was specifically marketed to the creepy pedophile audience) has managed to get himself engaged to yet another of his brother Nick’s cast-offs, Kari Ann Peniche, former Miss Teen USA and Playmate. Dude, he must be worth a lot more money than I thought. Hey, it’s the only explanation I could think of.

5. Okay, Janet Jackson has to stop making this face all the time. It’s not the sexy, stern, stately expression she thinks it is. In fact, it’s getting quite disturbing. See?

Also, I don’t think it’s exactly welcome or cute for her to keep talking about how she’s suddenly naked all over the place, like it’s some kind of surprising new experience. Have you seen any of her videos since “Rhythm Nation”? She trades on her sexuality constantly. How is this a brand new facet? I mean, did she or did she not flash the Titty That Launched a Thousand New Censorship Manifestations?

6. Wow. Didn’t Prince William used to be the cute one?

7. Kristin Cavallari, star of MTV’s fake reality show Laguna Beach, on her MySpace page. So, do you idiots just think that no one ever looks at your MySpace page, or…? Fuck, I hate fucking MySpace.

8. Paris Hilton, recorded on tape, being questioned by police about a 2004 robbery: “Like, I really…I don’t remember. I’m not, like, that smart. I, like, forget stuff all the time.” I know, you’re shocked to discover that Paris Hilton, who has built a multimedia empire (yes, I’ve heard people call it that), is a fucking dumbass.

9. I don’t know what’s going on in the Bahamas with Anna Nicole Smith’s son. Okay, so he’s got a death certificate, and she’s sold the pictures of her dead son so she could pay for the funeral, and he died on the same day her daughter was born (which is really sad, I admit). But the weirdness of the ongoing death investigation…that’s just odd and kind of disturbing. Why is it so hard to get a straight answer on anything with these celebrities?

10. Ha ha ha ha ha! Dude, is that Justin Timberlake’s angry face? Dude, that’s almost adorable, that is. Oh, man, that’s fucking hilarious. Hey, he kind of looks like Prince William! This ass is bringing sexy back? Let me know when he manages to magically bring it back to fugly Cameron Diaz, alright?

11. Not to keep harping on this, but I see that Lindsay Lohan and her stage mother Dina had a big fight at, get this, Dina’s birthday party. Yeah, because that’s the right place to tell you mom to go to hell in a room full of her friends, her birthday party. I know I’m a jerk, but it just sort of makes me laugh, because Dina has been the one this whole time acting like she can totally control Lindsay’s behavior. Apparently, Dina was drunk at her birthday party, there was a fight, “go to hell!,” blah blah blah. Apparently Dina kept making trip after trip to the bathroom and came out sniffing. You know what I mean. You know. So, then Lindsay goes on to fracture her wrist in two places after falling down yet fucking again. Can somebody please get that girl some milk? Jesus, she looks like she weighs about 17 pounds, but every single time she falls her bones shatter. What are they made out of? Spun sugar and candy glass? When are studios going to stop friggin’ hiring her for anything? Can we please punish this kind of asinine behavior for once?

12. Speaking of asinine behavior, I have to come down on my beloved Jessica Simpson and her handlers. So, first off, her father Joe claims that her publicist was doing his own thing, running off and planting a John Mayer story, coincidentally the same week her album comes out. Then Joe decides to fire the publicist for jumping on a story that simply wasn’t true. And then the tabloids turn around and blame Joe for planting the story himself (and as a side note, the tabloids have long had problems with Papa Joe and his Svengali-like attempts to control how the media relates to both of his girls). And Jessica’s publicist is no longer working for her (though she swears she didn’t fire him, and called tabloid outlets to apologize for the whole misunderstanding, which seems like an admission of some sort of guilt to me). Now Joe’s trying to control the media from another angle, this time striking a deal with WireImage to approve what images of his daughters are sent out to the world. Apparently he takes pictures of them at events and even tries to interfere with other photographers so they can’t get their shots, and supposedly he’s even supplied WireImage with racy shots of his girls while on vacation. The guy is fucking creepy. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jessica, fire your dad and hire a professional. This is all going to come down to you if you don’t separate yourself from him now.

13. Dude, Bam Margera needs to shut the fuck up about how he may or may not have slept with Jessica Simpson, alright? Bam, you sound like Fred Durst. Is that how pathetic you want to be? Because you’re pathetic enough already. Seriously, doesn’t this guy have anything in his life besides possibly fucking Jessica Simpson and the irony that a guy who looks like he reeks of chip stains, stale beer, and dried cum is a spokesman for a deodorant?

14. Talking about suicide attacks on the Vatican? Burning the pope in effigy? Well, at least Muslims aren’t overreacting to the intimation that they might just be irrationally violent. Dude, do I make you apologize every time you call America “the Great Satan”? No? Then fuck your papal apology. He’s the leader of the Catholics, he doesn’t have to be down with your club, alright?

15. And, in the only important news on this week’s Throwdown, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely this morning after 12 days in space and some serious work on the International Space Station. Welcome home.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Masters of Animation: Tex Avery

Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery was born, naturally, in Texas in 1908. His first project in the arts involved doing cartoons for his high school yearbook. His first attempts to make it in cartooning were not successful, and on the advice of some potential employers he went to the Chicago Art Institute to make something of himself. Avery lasted all of one month before deciding that the classes were teaching him nothing he needed to know, and he moved to LA. Tex worked on a dock, slept on the beach, and tried unsuccessfully to get himself a job as a newspaper strip cartoonist. Eventually, he was able to get a job in the ink and paint department working for Charles Mintz.

Avery left Mintz and got another animation job, this time at the Walter Lantz Studio. Working as an in-betweener, Avery found himself promoted pretty quickly (though he attributed this to a need for labor rather than any innate talent). Tex began at Lantz to define his own style of animated humor; something rebellious, surprising, and absolutely liberating. Because the Lantz Studio was such a relaxed environment, Tex was able to keep the rough, illogical, surrealist bent he had; at Disney, this would have been smoothed until it disappeared entirely. It is also at Lantz that Tex Avery lost his left eye during some horseplay with the other animators. This was a pretty normal way of blowing off steam, but someone substituted a paper clip for a wad of paper, put it in a rubber band, and left Tex Avery with only half of his sight. The accident changed Avery’s attitude towards his work. Whereas before he had been vain about his appearance, he now became slovenly and unpolished. He also started to worry a lot more about his work than he had before, obsessing over tiny, perfectionist details.

Tex Avery left Lantz in 1935 after a raise was refused, and got himself hired by Leon Schlesinger as an animation director on the Merrie Melodies series. Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones were assigned to animate in his unit, and the three fed off one another. Avery’s humor was the most bizarre of any of the animators at Schlesinger, but the audiences loved it, so the boss let him do whatever he wanted. Avery’s other colleagues followed his lead; they couldn’t compete with Disney’s level of emotional depth and artistry, so the Schlesigner animators instead chose to make their cartoons funnier and faster, chucking emphasis on characters to focus on gags and pacing. The results were not always successful, but slowly the animators managed to master their art.

Avery’s first cartoon for Schlesinger was Gold Diggers of ’49 (1936), starring Porky and Beans. A pig and cat team, Porky Pig was the zany troublemaker and Beans the Cat was a particularly boring straight man. Soon enough, Avery began to reshape the character of Porky Pig, turning him from a lovable infant into a more adult character. Avery wanted to stop aiming at small kids; Disney already had them, he figured, so why not go for an older audience with more sophisticated humor? The other Schlesinger animators followed suit, not necessarily due to a conscious decision, but owing something to influence and popularity. Avery’s streamlining went over well, and Porky Pig became the lead character of the Merrie Melodies, finally replacing Bosko, who had been around since the Harman-Ising days and who was proving to be little more than a paler version of Mickey Mouse. Porky was voiced by Joe Dougherty, a stuttering actor, but his stutter turned out to be more pathetic than funny, so he was replaced by Mel Blanc.

What Tex especially liked was twisting around recognizable styles; the violation of a style was a surprise, and Avery felt that surprise was what got laughs in his cartoons. He parodied fairy tales in the classic cartoons Little Red Walking Hood (1937), Cinderella Meets Fella (1938), and The Bear’s Tale (1940). He parodied the documentary in Believe It or Else (1939), the nature film in Fresh Fish (1939), and the travelogue in Detouring America (1939) and The Island of Pingo Pongo (1938). His Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937) was a burlesque that spoofed musicals. Avery preferred these kinds of cartoons to the repeated use of recurring characters. He felt they hampered the laughs in a story, because they had to conform to expectations of the character (the Disney animators, for their part, might have agreed; in the late thirties, they began to focus on Donald Duck because the expectations placed on Mickey Mouse’s behavior slowed down the laughs).

It is ironic, then, that Avery created two more characters in 1937. The first was Daffy Duck, who made his first appearance in Porky’s Duck Hunt as an uncontrollable, unstable trickster. The second was Egghead, who first appeared in Egghead Rides Again. Egghead merged with another character that Avery used in Dangerous Dan McFoo in 1939; the character was voiced by radio actor Arthur Q. Bryan, and the other animators loved his voice so much that they decided to build a character around it. Since Egghead wasn’t going anywhere, they took him and gave him a new voice and turned him into the earliest version of Elmer Fudd.

Tex Avery was also instrumental in the creation of another important animated character. In Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), Avery pitted Elmer Fudd against a rascally rabbit. In his next Elmer cartoon, A Wild Hare (1940), Avery streamlined Elmer into something much closer to his final form, and developed the rabbit (with the help of Chuck Thorsen, Mel Blanc and Bugs Hardaway) into the familiar Bugs Bunny.

Bugs Bunny turned out to be the reason that Avery left Leon Schlesinger Studios. Schlesinger himself is well remembered as a hands-off animation producer; that is, he is famous for being the guy who let his animators do whatever they wanted and didn’t interfere with them. But once he saw Bugs Bunny becoming popular, he took it upon himself to interfere with Avery’s cartoon The Heckling Hare (1941), the ending of which showed Bugs apparently getting killed. Schlesinger couldn’t allow his new star to die, so he unceremoniously chopped off the last 40 feet of film, ending the cartoon rather abruptly. Tex hated him for it, and the animosity between the two grew so troublesome that Tex ended up getting fired.

MGM signed him immediately. Fred Quimby, producer of the MGM animated shorts, was by all accounts humorless; not only did he not understand why people thought William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s Tom & Jerry cartoons were funny, but he found Tex Avery’s humor incomprehensible. But he did know that Tex’s cartoons were pretty well-liked by audiences, and besides he could work very fast, so he took the chance and hired him. Tex was given an animation unit (including Ed Love and Preston Blair) and hired as a director.

Avery was expected to create new characters. Again, he didn’t care much for continuing the adventures of one character over and over, and his first creation, Screwy Squirrel, is a grating, obnoxious little puke (and besides that, he’s a thin rip-off of Woody Woodpecker). Avery preferred to play with archetypes instead of characters, twisting folklore in humorous ways. But Avery did have a few successes waiting. First, he won the Oscar for his MGM short Blitz Wolf (1942), a satire of the Axis powers that is one of the great World War II cartoons. Avery liked the Wolf, so he took the basic template and continued to use it throughout his career at MGM. Still, I always got the feeling that the Wolf was a different, completely new character each time. Avery wasn’t interested in personality and emotional depth; he just wanted to get to the action.

Action presented itself in only his third cartoon for MGM, the famous Red Hot Riding Hood (1943). Much has been made about how sexy the dancing girl Red is in a cartoon meant for children. And it did run into trouble with the Production Code, who ordered some scenes to be reanimated (among the cuts was an ending in which Grandma forced the Wolf to marry her, and a final shot of their children in a lust-crazed frenzy, watching Red on stage and going nuts; the powers that be felt the suggestion of bestiality was far too strong). But the fact is, Avery always meant the cartoon for an adult audience; specifically, American troops. There was a booming interwar interest in sex, and Avery took full advantage of it. At Disney, the realistic animation of the sexy dancing girl would have been filmed in live action first; Fred Quimby wouldn’t have paid for that, so Preston Blair simply animated without a live model reference. It took twice as long to animate as anything else, but it was an artistic triumph. It remains one of the most popular cartoons ever. When Red next appeared, however, in The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Blair used some live action film.

In his fourth cartoon for MGM, Dumb-hounded (1943), Tex Avery created the character Droopy. The wrinkled, jowly, sleepy dog didn’t have a name for many years; Avery thought he could use the character sometimes, but didn’t want to create a personality for him a la Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. The voice was provided by Bill Thompson; ironically, Thompson inspired the character with the voice he used for Wallace Wimple on Fibber McGee and Molly. For Droopy, Thompson used the same voice.

Avery’s timing really took off with Red’s next appearance, in Swing Shift Cinderella (1945). Even though it had seemed as if Tex was bored at MGM and not really invested in his cartoons, he suddenly found himself inspired. For example, Northwest Hounded Police (1946) is essentially a remake of Dumb-hounded, but much, much funnier. There is a period of just a year or two that saw some of Avery’s best work: Uncle Tom’s Cabana (1947), Slaphappy Lion (1947), and the classic King-Size Canary (1947), one of the funniest cartoons of all time.

After a string of genius cartoons in which Tex was able to shed all of the Disney influence that animators couldn’t avoid having in the forties, Avery saw Preston Blair leave his unit to become a director. Ed Love also left the unit, and Avery was saddled with former Disney men. Suddenly, cuteness was pervasive in his cartoons, as much as he tried to do away with it. Senor Droopy (1949), the first cartoon where Droopy is actually given a name, is something of a disappointment. It is like watching someone do a pastiche of Tex Avery’s style, rather than Avery himself. There were still moments of genius, of course--Little Rural Riding Hood (1949), Wags to Riches (1949)--but his cartoons were never the same.

Tex Avery’s particular gift, when he chose to exercise it (he did have a tendency to repeat the same gags over and over), was a total irreverence for what had become the logic of cartoons. Today his humor is called surrealist, but Tex just didn’t adhere to any restrictions. He did a lot of gags that involved breaking the fourth wall, with characters commenting on the action, apologizing for the lameness of puns, walking out of the boundaries of the cartoon, etc. His thinking was completely unconventional, and the surprise of that unconventionality shocked audiences into laughter. This proved to be popular, and just like at Schlesinger, Tex’s cartoons started to rub off on his colleagues. Hanna and Barbera’s unit was already running a great series of cartoons with the Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry series; when they adopted Avery’s style, the cartoons got even better.

The truth is, Tex Avery could be a worrier and was obsessive about details. He would be gripped by anxiety over how a cartoon would come out in the end. He was a perfectionist who wanted his animation to be subtle; but he liked broad comedy, which was completely at odds with such a style. Though one could argue that this attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable styles created some of the finest cartoons in the history of the medium, it drove Tex mad with worry. He was always sure he was going to be fired; when he worked for Schlesinger, he would carry a stack of papers with him whenever he left his desk; this way, if someone saw him, he could claim to be working. He was also self-conscious about his art, despite the praise of nearly everyone who ever worked for him. Some say that Avery’s designs needed very little tweaking; but they also say that he considered his artwork to be crude and asked his animators and designers not to use them. He also hated to collaborate, either giving in when he knew his instincts were right, or staying late in order to check all the work done that day and prepping everything on his own, doing as much as possible by himself.

All the stress added up, and Tex finally took a year off in 1950 (he was replaced, to ill effect, by former Disney animator Dick Lundy). When he returned, it seemed as though his skills as a story man had stayed on vacation. His first cartoon after his return, Little Johnny Jet (1953), is almost completely lifeless. The animation industry had changed. First, the UPA Studios had introduced a new style of animation that was flat and angular. Ed Benedict redesigned the characters (including Droopy) to match that style, but the effect made Avery’s cartoons less than what they had been. And second, television had entered people’s lives. While Hanna and Barbera saw TV as a new opportunity, Avery remained firmly a theatrical man. When MGM closed down Avery’s unit in 1954, he went back to the Walter Lantz Studio. He only directed four cartoons there, two of them Chilly Willy shorts: I’m Cold and The Legend of Rock-a-Bye Point (the latter in collaboration with former Schlesinger story man Mike Maltese). Avery felt he was being ripped off financially (plus, Lantz’s budgets were smaller and his demands more rigid than Quimby’s) and left to work for Cascade, a company producing animated television commercials. At some point, he began drinking heavily. His son Tim died of a drug overdose in 1972 at the age of 24; the drinking got worse, and his wife of 40 years, Patricia, left him. In 1977 he took a job with, ironically, Hanna-Barbera, where he designed characters and wrote gags. He collapsed one day in 1980; William Hanna drove him to the hospital, where he was informed that he had lung cancer that had progressed rapidly. He died soon after, on 26 August.

In his lifetime, Tex Avery had found it hard to realize his ambitions entirely. His work did not flow easily; he worked hard to shape his cartoons, and was unsure of himself much of the time. Today, he is considered one of the biggest influences on modern animation. His cartoons are remembered as being among the funniest ever made. And, simply, they are.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Quick Animation Geek Aside

I had a major geek moment the other day. Clay Kaytis commented on Electronic Cerebrectomy. Which is a pretty big deal to me. First, it’s a big deal because I sometimes feel that my Evaluating Disney and Masters of Animation posts are not exactly popular with people who read this blog. Second, Clay Kaytis is the gentleman who runs one of my favorite animation blogs, The Animation Podcast, where he’s been doing some excellent interviews with today’s animation luminaries (including Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, and Ron Clements & John Musker). Not only is Clay a fan of animation, he’s actually a Disney animator; most recently he was an animator on the character Buck Cluck under Nik Ranieri for Chicken Little. Just before that, he animated those cute farm animals under James Lopez for Home on the Range. And right now, he’s a supervising animator on the next film from Chris Sanders, who co-directed the best Disney film of the 21st century (so far), Lilo & Stitch. And I believe that film is American Dog, which sounds like it’s going to be a really neat movie. So, what this all comes down to is that my posts on the history of animation are apparently being read and enjoyed by a Disney animator who runs a great blog that is essential for any animation fans. And that makes me feel good.

Speaking of Chris Sanders, I recently bought a copy of his new sketchbook through Bud Plant. It’s a short collection, but if you like sexy girls and funny animals (which seems to be the current focus in popular sketchwork, not that I’m complaining), it blows Frank Cho out of the water. Sanders’s work contains a lot of personality and originality; he’s that rare artist whose sketches already look animated, bursting off the page with life, humor, and personalities of their own. If you’re into sketchbooks, it’s the best one I’ve looked at in the last year. Quick aside: I wonder if he’s influenced at all by Vaughn Bode, I see a little bit of a similarity.

The Last Will and Testament of Charles Lounsberry

This poetic prose has made the rounds for nearly a hundred years now. It was purpoted to be the work of a lawyer who had died in an asylum, found in his pocket. It was also found in a notebook in Mineral County, West Virginia, as a number of documents transcribed in a WPA project in the 1930s. I recently heard this in a short film from 1941, Your Last Act, part of the John Nesbitt's Passing Parade series, where it is presented as an actual will, found on the body of a dead hobo in a boxcar, and written on the back of a bill of lading. It seems it was originally published in 1907 in the Chicago Record-Herald as the "Last Will and Testament of Charles Lounsberry," thought to be an inmate of the asylum at Dunning, Illinois. Further investigation, however, by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, has shown this to be the work of an author named Williston Fish, who had a brother named John Charles Lounsberry Fish, and who wrote this as a gift item of the time and may have perpetuated it as a hoax. Must be one of the urban legends of my sweet home Chicago.

Either way, these are beautiful words, and I present them here with love for all of society (which I do genuinely have, despite my constant bitching; I just hate the people who are selfish and don't care).

I, Charles Lounsberry, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do hereby make and publish this, my last will and testament in order, as justly as may be, to distribute my interests in the world among succeeding men.

That part of my interest, which is known in law and recognized in the sheep-bound volumes as my property, being inconsiderable and none account, I make no disposition in this, my will. My right to live, being but a life estate, is not at my disposal, but these things excepted, all else in the world I now proceed to devise and bequeath.

ITEM: I give to good fathers and mothers in trust for their children all good little words of praise and encouragement, and all quaint pet names and endearments, and I charge said parents to use them justly, as the needs of their children shall require.

ITEM: I leave to children inclusively, but only for the term of their childhood, all and every, the flowers of the field, and the blossoms of the woods, with the right to play among them freely according to the customs of children warning them at the same time against thistles and thorns. And I devise to children the banks and brooks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, and the odors of the willows, that dip therein and the white clouds that float high over the giant trees. And I leave to children the long, long days, to be merry in, in a thousand ways, and the night, and the moon, and the train of the Milky Way to wonder at, but subject, nevertheless, to the rights hereinafter given to Lovers.

ITEM: I devise to boys all the usual, idle fields and commons where ball may be played; all pleasant waters where one may swim; all snow-clad hills where one may coast; and all streams and ponds where one may fish, or where, when grim winter comes, one may skate, to have and to hold these same for the period of their boyhood. And all meadows, with the clover blossoms and butterflies thereof; the woods with their appurtenances, the squirrels and the birds and echoes and strange noises, and all distant places which my be visited, together with the adventures there found. And I give to said boys each his own place at the fireside at night, with all the pictures that may be seen in the burning wood, to enjoy without let or hindrance, and without any encumbrance or care.

ITEM: To lovers, I devise their imaginary world with whatever that may need, as the stars of the sky, the red roses by the wall, the bloom of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.

ITEM: To young men, jointly, I devise and bequeath all boisterous, inspiring sports of rivalry, and I give them the disdain of weakness and undaunted confidence in their own strength. Though they are rude, I leave to them the power to make lasting friendships, and of possessing companions and to them exclusively, I give all merry songs and brave choruses to sing with lusty voices.

ITEM: And to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave memory, and I bequeath to them the volume of the poems of Burns and Shakespeare and of other poems, if there be others to the end that they may live the old days over again, freely and fully without title or diminution.

ITEM: To our loved ones with snowy crowns, I bequeath the happiness of old age, the love and gratitude of their children until they fall asleep.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this week. Incidentally, Turner Classic Movies had a whole day of short films on Friday, so that's why this entry is so damn long.

Incredibly unwatchable movie that wastes the talent and time of Charisma Carpenter (but it was on the SCIFI Channel, so I should’ve known it would be shit). Eric Mabius looks like Marc Singer after he’s been dead for three weeks, but without the acting ability Singer would have in the same circumstances. No stars.

Okay, am I the only one who has noticed this agenda? There is a real streak in film (The Devil Wears Prada, Garden State and all the other Graduate rip-offs) and especially in television of trying to get people to stop thinking big. To stop people from wanting more out of their lives than what they’re given. This insulting movie is about yet another one of those whiny neurotic goons that TV executives think are so interesting. He goes to visit his parents, and takes his girlfriend (the always adorable Charisma Carpenter) with him. Now, the dynamics of the relationship are interesting: Charisma loves the Loser, loves his family, and boosts his confidence. She’s into her career, but in a professional way, not in the stereotypically bitchy way of most professional women you see in movies. No, Charisma is just a classy, successful, goal-oriented person. And her Loser really needs someone goal-oriented to help drive him along. And then, by the end of the movie, he dumps Charisma for the small town girl he loved in high school. The problem is, there’s no logic for this in the story. Why humiliate Charisma? What did she ever do? She’s the nicest, most genuine, most emotionally honest person that he knows. It’s as if the movie just had to get across its triumph-of-smalltown-values-and-little-dreams point across so badly, they didn’t even bother to make Charisma’s character unlikable. She’s the only likable person in the whole fucking thing! All I could see was a movie telling you that it’s emotionally healthy to retreat back into the life you had in high school, and to never want anything better for yourself. And why do movies go to all the trouble of punishing professional women for having careers and being good at them? I’ll go * star for Charisma, but I really, really despised this thing and was very insulted by it. As if it weren’t enough to have Nicholas Brendon in it, an actor I find repellent in every aspect.

More waste of Charisma Carpenter, but at least she’s naked from behind in this one. And her ass looks wonderful. She’s adorable. You know she’s half-Mexican and half-American Indian. That translates to all sexy for me. Anyway, ½ star.

Monte Hellman’s film used to have a cult following, but I haven’t heard from them in years. This is a weird movie, shot in a naturalistic type of pace that is alternately slow and really slow. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play racers driving across the country in a suped-up 1955 Chevy 210 coupe. They are joined by a young girl they’re both attracted to. Warren Oates, one of my favorite actors, is also driving across the country in a powerful new GTO; there’s something wrong with the guy, and he keeps telling lie after lie about who he is and what he’s doing. They get involved in a race, and… well, not much else really happens. What’s most interesting about the movie is the tone; the long takes, the silence that says more than the dialogue, the understated realism. It’s a weird movie that seems to go nowhere, and yet I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s hard to rate a movie that has that effect on you because, really, the rating is meaningless. I could say three stars, but it doesn’t convey much at all. So this is only the second movie in Film Week history that I’m going to leave unrated (the first was The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things). You might just have to see it for yourself and let it flow over you.

A DOG’S LIFE (1918)
Charles Chaplin stars in this precursor to The Kid. Only this time, the Kid is a dog who is the Tramp’s constant companion. Naturally, the Tramp falls in love and does everything he can think of to escape to a better life. This is one of the best-realized of the Tramp’s adventures. **** stars.

Chaplin’s Little Tramp again, this time out with wife Edna Purviance and the kids. The point is, basically, that it’s a lot of work going out to relax. A funny film, with the Tramp more harried than usual. ***1/2 stars.

One of the best of Chaplin’s shorter films, this time with Chaplin in two roles. The first is the Tramp, of course, but the second is a rich man who is bored with his shrewish wife and their rich society life. When the Tramp shows up at a costume party, there are the usual mistaken identities and such. It sounds mundane, but it’s very funny. **** stars.

Two short films directed by Buster Keaton and starring the Original Sing Band, an African-American band whose shtick was that they didn’t play instruments; they simply made music come alive. They’re pretty neat, but they seem so disinterested in doing any acting that they come off boring. The sound isn’t great, either. And whose idea was it for a black band to sing a song about how much they love barbecue while serving it to rich white people? Both films: **1/2 stars.

HIGH GEAR (1931)
AIR TIGHT (1931)
CALL A COP! (1931)
These are shorts are the earliest work of director George Stevens. They are also terrible. They’re part of Hal Roach’s series The Boy Friends, which is an outgrowth of his long-running and very popular (and much, much better) Our Gang series. Built around the fact that Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman were no longer cute little kids, The Boy Friends series centered around young students who…had adventures practically identical to the kids from Our Gang. Unfortunately for these youngsters, acting like cute little kids with the same mannerisms over and over didn’t exactly widen their range of believable reactions, and these are almost aggressively unfunny to watch. No stars on any of them.

These shorts represent the earliest work of director George Marshall, who would direct one of the greatest American Westerns ever made, Destry Rides Again. These shorts, however, are unwatchable. It was an interesting idea to team up the beautiful Thelma Todd and the funny-but-personality-free Zasu Pitts for a series of comedy shorts. Unfortunately, they forgot to make them remotely funny. No stars, all of them.

This short film by George Sidney prefigures his later Kiss Me, Kate with a similar plot: married show people argue over billing. But the real reason to watch this film is for the dance numbers, which are athletic, over-the-top, and exquisitely rendered. Impresario Billy Rose appears as himself. ***1/2 stars.

LOVE ON TAP (1939)
Like the previous, but very lame. Well, it’s George Sidney, they’re not all going to be winners. ** stars.

One of those shorts that are supposed to show Hollywood types relaxing with their hobbies. It’s fairly stupid, actually, with two tourists going on a tour and seeing stars everywhere. Clark Gable, in particular, seems quite amused (and annoyed) as he plays himself, casually whitewashing his fence. There is some footage of Hollywood’s annual charity baseball game, but none of the funny antic you usually see in documentaries and such. James Stewart has an amusing cameo as himself; it’s so forced that it’s hilarious. *1/2 stars.

Part of the excellent John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade series of short films, this entry focuses on how sociologists experimenting with white mice discovered that (amazing for the time, yes) children learn at different rates and by different means. Thus, progressive schools are born. Must be interesting; I went to one of those yell-at-you-and-tell-you-you’re-stupid-because-you-get-stagefright schools instead. *** stars.

Melodramatic short film about the establishment of the American Red Cross. I think we were, what, the last country to accept the Red Cross? Well, America certainly doesn’t have a great record when it comes to humane treatment for people. I mean, we did used to own them. But hey, at least we treat dogs well. **1/2 stars.

Lame short about a girl who wins a trip to Hollywood and imagines a whole spiral of attempting to find success and all that stereotypical jazz. Meh. *1/2 stars.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performs a ballet choreographed by (and starring) Leonide Massine, one of the greatest dancers ever to grace the screen (and whom you may, if you’ve seen it, remember from The Red Shoes--and if you haven’t seen it, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to). This short film focuses only on the ballet itself with some narration, and is a beautiful thing to see. Dancing on the screen rarely gets better than this. Set to the music of Offenbach. **** stars.

Mawkish, cloying film that laments the loss of vaudeville. If you say so. * star.

Meh. Didn’t make a big enough impression on me to remember it now. * star.

These three short films are from the series of Pete Smith Specialties, and are directed by Jacques Tourneur. Like John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade which it precedes, Pete Smith’s series were lively, informative, and never dull. The Jonker Diamond is about the discovery of the world’s largest diamond in Africa; the information about diamond cutting and how it is done is highly informative and especially interesting: *** stars. Harnessed Rhythm is about harness horse racing, specifically the horse Dixie Dan. The footage of the trotting is exciting, putting the viewer right on the track; the use of slow motion film is, for once, particularly useful in portraying the action: ***1/2 stars. And Killer Dog reenacts the case of a quarter-wolf mongrel who was accused of killing a rancher’s sheep. It’s a bit of a heartstring-puller, but very good: **** stars.

Jacques Tourneur directed this beautiful short film that accompanied The Good Earth in 1937. This short portrays the world of Chinese live theater, and how full of imagination and wonder it can be, especially for those who expect Chinese culture to be dour and dull. The film focuses on a performance of “The Rainbow Pass,” the story of a warrior woman who challenges the warlord who murdered her husband to a duel. The best thing about this is its authenticity; actual Chinese performers in an actual Chinese theater with an actual Chinese audience (though the film is in English). It’s not condescending at all, which is unusual for the time period (especially when looking at another culture). Beautiful stuff. **** stars.

Another Jacques Tourneur short, this one about the havoc a distracted, selfish boss can wreak on the home life of his workers. Most bosses should have to see this one, I think. *** stars.

An early John Nesbitt short directed by Fred Zinneman about Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who cured childbed fever. Sort of. See, in the mid-1800s, women all over the world were dying after giving birth to a child. They would be perfectly healthy, but then they would suddenly, mysteriously die. The death rate was an enormous 13 percent, and most women preferred to give birth on the street than in the hospital. Dr. Semmelweis was the first to discover that doctors needed to wash their hands in order to kill microbes that were otherwise transferred from patient to patient. His handwashing program saw the mortality rate drop to 2 percent, but of course, the establishment rejected the idea. Semmelweis tried to spread this knowledge for years, but no one would listen; he was eventually sent to an asylum and died under mysterious circumstances (it came out in 1979 that he was beaten badly by asylum staff the night of his arrival, and died of his injuries within a fortnight). Louis Pasteur later developed the germ theory of disease. But Semmelweis got there first. **** stars.

Another Pete Smith Specialty, this one about George Washington Carver. Good stuff, directed by Fred Zinneman. ***1/2 stars.

Another Fred Zinneman-directed entry in John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade, this one about Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who discovered that the plague-level disease pellagra was in fact caused by malnutrition. Dated, but dramatic. ***1/2 stars.

A lame short film in the Crime Does Not Pay series, this one about the disaster that befalls a man and his family when he doesn’t follow proper INS channels (which include waiting a year to be reunited with his wife and child). I found the tone of the whole short smug and authoritarian; maybe if the INS wasn’t so incredibly good at needlessly splitting up families, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. But there I go, thinking about the needs of people again. No stars.

Another entry in John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade. This Fred Zinneman film is about what people can do with their Last Will and Testament, be it vengeful, imbecilic, or altruistic. One woman leaves her fortune to her pet dog, but a convicted murderer on his way to the chair donates his corneas to a little girl in need of an operation. One particularly put-upon husband watches his wife spend all her money on charlatan mediums and psychics in an attempt to communicate with her first husband; he leaves his wife a record, promising her that if she can find a real medium, he’ll tell her from beyond the grave where he buried all of their money. And finally, the beautiful Last Will of Charles Lounsberry is read at the end. **** stars.

Sad Peter Gilbert film about his mother, whose memory deteriorated after a stroke, but who now loves to watch old movies to bring them back. Bittersweet, but lovely. ***1/2 stars.

Witty, hilarious short documentary by Griffin Dunne about Mars’s now legendary refusal to allow Steven Spielberg to use M&Ms in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. **** stars.

Apparently, all Mario Van Peebles is going to do with the rest of his life is talk about how his father made Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song. But can he do it without dressing up children like pimps and reenacting scenes, please? Because it's not really as cute as some people seem to think. No stars.

Meh. Short film by a music video director. * star.

An interesting short film, but not much to it. *** stars.

Weird, trippy short film that blows the shit out of the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unpleasant as hell, but quite interesting to look at. From the director of the criminally underrated Shadow of the Vampire. ***1/2 stars.

Two unpleasant and uninvolving shorts from David Lynch, a director who I just don’t like very much at all. * star apiece.

Stanley Kubrick short film about the tension a boxer feels the day he’s going to fight. An interesting study, though ultimately cold. *** stars. Kubrick, cold? Never. His films are a garden of emotional discovery, aren’t they?

More Kubrick, even more boring. * star.

Ridley Scott’s college movie is a surprise. On the face of it, it’s a rambling exercise by a kid who recently saw and loved The Bicycle Thief. But it’s actually a pretty absorbing study of a youngster who is dissatisfied with his working class British city life. Interesting, especially when compared to Scott’s feature films, which have a tendency to be disjointed and simplistic to less effect. ***1/2 stars.

Tony Scott’s college movie, based on an Ambrose Bierce story, is about a Confederate soldier who dies on a scouting mission. Creative, though I can’t help noticing that even then, Scott couldn’t resist blowing everything up. Less cluttered, busy, and “unintentionally” homoerotic than Tony Scott’s feature films. *** stars.

As a director, I’ve always found Jane Campion oddly passionless (with the exception of The Piano, of course). These short films are similarly obtuse and bizarre. Peel: An Exercise in Discipline is the most successful of the three, in which Campion makes her passionless bent the point of her study of a family who cannot relate to one another. But Passionless Moments takes her lack of emotionalism to a level that is neither comfortable nor very introspective. A Girl’s Own Story sees sex as something cold and remote, something that is, apparently, supposed to be misunderstood and feared. Campion’s feature films show the same kind of fluctuation, too easily getting caught up in some kind of theory of relationships rather than any genuine passion, and curiously uninvolving. Peel: ***1/2 stars. Passionless Moments and A Girl’s Own Story: *1/2 stars.

Disney Channel claptrap about a dance team at an inner city Hispanic high school. I watched it for America Ferrera, who is much, much better than this (I assume you’ve seen Real Women Have Curves, which is wonderful). *1/2 stars.

F.W. Murnau (of Nosferatu) came to America to direct this early Oscar winner. It tells a very simple (but no less interesting and full) story about a man who has an affair with a woman from the city (the sexy Margaret Lockwood) and considers killing his wife in order to be with his mistress. Interestingly, some of this (right down to the fateful boat ride) would be recalled later in Dresier’s novel An American Tragedy. Janet Gaynor plays the wife, whose plan face and simple desires reach straight into her husband’s heart. A beautiful tone poem of a film. **** stars.

A short film by Francois Truffaut about a group of children who are obsessed with the older sister of one of the boys, and set out to ruin her relationship so they can keep her to themselves. It’s a simple remembrance of that first time in life when you feel a deep attraction to women, but a beautiful and familiar one. I think we all had a friend with an older sister like that, didn’t we? **** stars.

Cary Grant and Doris Day. Well, you kind of know from there, don’t you? This is a cute sex comedy, enhanced (as everything is) by the presence of Grant. Like most of these comedies, it’s a little too earnest and a little too long, but the multiple plot elements, the back-and-forth structure, and the patness of the happy ending are almost Shakespearean. Seriously. Gig Young is hilarious as Grant’s neurotic office assistant. This is probably as good as you’re going to find in the genre and time period. ***1/2 stars.

MATA HARI (1931)
I love Greta Garbo, and everything she’s in is worth seeing. That said, this was a bit of a disappointment. It just isn’t a well-made film, and it doesn’t really keep you glued to the screen. Good performances by Ramon Navarro and Lionel Barrymore, though. And Garbo, always wonderful. **1/2 stars.

Horrible short film that is a sort of “Where Are They Now?” for actors from the Silent Era. There is a sort of smarmy tone to it, where most Silent actors are seen as tragedies who always thought they would be popular, and failed to see the direction the wind was blowing in. Really bad stuff. * star.

Two student films of Martin Scorsese. They show an interesting preoccupation with family and at least the appearance of normality. *** stars each.

Big-Ass Music Meme

I nabbed this music meme from Becca. It's enormous and took me forever to answer. But what else am I going to do, find a job?

What’s a great late night song?
Leonard Cohen: “Suzanne”
Donovan: “Atlantis”
Procol Harum: “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
Santo and Johnny: “Sleepwalk”
Them: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Name 5-10 wistful/bittersweet songs:
1. Ed Ames: “Try to Remember”
2. Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash: “Girl from the North Country”
3. Joni Mitchell: “Both Sides Now”
4. Moby: “In This World”
5. Roy Orbison & k.d. lang: “Crying”
6. Lou Reed: “Perfect Day”
7. Jessica Simpson: “You Don’t Have to Let Go”
8. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: “Redemption Song”
9. Johnny Thunders: “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”
10. Stevie Wonder: “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer”

The 4 Best Songs Ever Written:
1. The Beach Boys: “God Only Knows”
2. Mel Carter: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”
3. Otis Redding: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”
4. T. Rex: “Cosmic Dancer”

3 Current Favorite Songs:
1. The Arcade Fire: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
2. The Rolling Stones: “Waiting on a Friend”
3. The Zombies: “Hung Up on a Dream”

Classic Early Evening Drinking Music:
Waylon Jennings: “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
The Rolling Stones: “This Place Is Empty”

3 All Time Faves That Never Get Old To You
1. The Beach Boys: “Don’t Worry, Baby”
2. Peter, Paul & Mary: “Puff the Magic Dragon”
3. Queen: “Somebody to Love”

Song You Want (or did) To Play At Your Wedding:
The Sandpipers: “Theme from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”

4 Records You Really Dug from 2005:
1. The Darkness, One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back
2. Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days
3. The Rolling Stones, A Bigger Bang
4. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois

Favorite Records From This Year So Far:
1. Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways
2. Morrissey, Ringleader of the Tormentors
3. OutKast, Idlewild
4. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, Under the Covers, Vol. 1

Good Angry Songs:
David Bowie: “It’s No Game, Part 1”
Foo Fighters: “Best of You”
Billy Joel: “Everybody Loves You Now”
Iggy Pop with Sum 41: “Little Know-It-All”
Utopia: “Crybaby”

One of Your Favorite Lyrics:
Here’s two hippie/cosmic sets.

“Oh to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon,
To paint that love upon a white balloon
And fly it from the toppest tops of all the tops that man has pushed beyond his brain”
--David Bowie, “Memory of a Free Festival, Part I”

“I danced myself right out the womb.
Is it strange to dance so soon?
I’ll dance myself into the tomb
And then again, once more,
I’ll dance myself out of the womb.”
--T. Rex, “Cosmic Dancer”

5 Cover Songs Arguably Better Than the Original:
1. The Band: “Atlantic City”
2. The Byrds: “My Back Pages”
3. Willie Nelson: “American Tune”
4. William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson: “Common People”
5. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: “Redemption Song”

Ironic Song to Brutally Murder Someone to in a movie:
Kate Bush: “This Woman’s Work” (I picture it being like the “Freebird” scene in The Devil’s Rejects)

Great Dance Song You Maybe Never Realized Was a Great Dance song Back in the Day:
I can’t think of answer to this one. Although I can mention that I despise the meaningless phrase “back in the day.”

Good Album to Clean the House To:
Billy Joel, Songs in the Attic

Good Dining Music:
Leonard Cohen, The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Good Album to Love On Each Other To:
T. Rex, Electric Warrior

A Good Album to Put You In the Mood (that is NOT Sade, Marvin Gaye or Barry White):
Almost any Prince album.

Good Album To Sleep To:
Love, Forever Changes

5 Good Rock Songs That You Can Dance To:
1. Bobby Freeman: “Do You Wanna Dance?”
2. The Jackson Five: “ABC”
3. The Ran-Dells: “The Martian Hop”
4. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”
5. The Stone Poneys: “Different Drum”

Song That Is Too Damn Sad:
Jessica Simpson: “You Don’t Have to Let Go”
(Though I admit that “Baby Mine” from Dumbo and “Puff the Magic Dragon” do make me cry.)

Honorable mentions:
Aly & AJ, "Rush"
Leann Rimes, "How Do I Live Without You"
Jessica Simpson, "Angels"
(These were played at my sister's funeral.)

Great Love Song:
Louis Armstrong: “We Have All the Time in the World”

Honorable Mention:
The Faces: “Maybe I’m Amazed”

Song To An Ex That Isn’t Mean-Spirited:
Stevie Wonder: “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer”
Todd Rundgren: "Can We Still Be Friends"

Song To An Ex That Is Kinda Meanspirited:
Neil Sedaka: “Bad Blood”

Song to Listen to While in the Country Looking at Stars:
Wille Nelson: “Stardust”

Song to lose your Mind to:
“Weird Al” Yankovic: “Dare to Be Stupid”

Song To Cry In Your Pillow to:
Harry Nilsson: “Without You”

Songs That Make You Feel Amped and Inspired:
The Beach Boys: “I Know There’s an Answer”
David Bowie: “Station to Station”
The Darkness: “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
Divine Comedy: “Songs of Love”
Meat Loaf: “Bat Out of Hell”

Great Semi-Obscure B-side:
David Bowie: “Conversation Piece”

Song That Makes You Miss Your Mom:
Cat Stevens: “Moonshadow”

That’s Baby Makin’ Music (No, Really):
The Darkness: “Growin’ on Me”
Al Green: "Let's Stay Together"
Prince: “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
Otis Redding: "Try a Little Tenderness"
T. Rex: “Raw Ramp”

Criminally Underrated Band That Didn’t Get Attention and Then Broke Up:
I can’t think of one, really.

Best Screw You I Am a Teenager in Pain Song:
Mott the Hoople: “All the Young Dudes”

Feel No Shame, Great Current Pop Songs:
Gnarls Barkley: “Crazy”
JoJo: “Too Little Too Late”
Matisyahu: “King Without a Crown”
Morrissey: “At Last I Am Born”
OutKast: “Mighty O”
Jessica Simpson: “A Public Affair”

Album No One Would Expect You To Love:
I don’t know what people expect me to like or not. I am partial to Leonard Nimoy’s The Touch of Leonard Nimoy, but I liked weird novelty stuff.

Album No One Would Expect You To Dislike:
Again, I have no idea.

Album No One Would Expect You To Really Know:
You tell me. I don't pride myself on the appearance of eclecticism, but I'm not 14 anymore, so...

Emo Album You Actually Like:
I’m not a hundred percent sure I get emo (my cousin Crystal says it’s like Goth with more crying), so I looked up a bunch of info online. As near as I can tell, emo grew out of the mid-eighties implosion of American hardcore punk, became incredibly shitty bands like Fugazi, and then grew into today’s even shittier watered-down versions of fake punk. And I hate every single band I’ve seen labeled as emo. Mostly it seems to be guys in their thirties whining about getting dumped in high school. So, I would have to say my favorite emo album is Emo Philips’s E=MO Squared, which features the fun song “I Like to Shop in Downtown Downers Grove,” a place where I spent a lot of time as a kid.

Good, But Overrated Cause Of Indie Revisionism:
I have no idea what the hell indie refers to anymore.

5 Desert Island Discs off the top of your head (30 sec clock):
1. Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell
2. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3. Brian Wilson, SMiLE
4. The Rolling Stones, Forty Licks
5. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

3 Contemporary Artists That Were Your Faves 10 Years Ago:
1. David Bowie
2. Bob Dylan
3. The Rolling Stones

Music That Makes You Feel Sophisticated:
Lame question. But I'm not 14, so...

Fave Electronic Record You Own:
Moby, Play

Hip-Hop Song You Know All the Lyrics To:
Snoop Dogg featuring Justin Timberlake and Charlie Wilson: “Signs”

Random Album You Loved In High School But Are Afraid To Admit It:
I’m not afraid to admit I like anything, frankly. In high school I had a lot of the same favorites I do now: The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Meat Loaf, Bowie, Elton John, Billy Joel, the Stones, Dylan, Weird Al, etc. I can’t think of anything that might be, like, “embarrassing.”

Album You May Have Listened To More In High School than Any Other Album:
Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell

If You Could Enter A Wrestling Ring to a Song It Would Be:
Bob Catley: “City Walls”

Album To Clear A Room With:
I don’t know; I seem to have the opposite musical taste of most people I know.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006

Perhaps My Final Post on Ashlee Simpson

Ashlee Simpson has now become a Garden of Plastic Reconstruction. It's more than just a nose job now, isn't it? This is a promotional image for her run as Roxie Hart in the West End production of Chicago, and it's just a little tragic. Look at her tiny, skinny bird arms. We all know about the nose job, but it appears to me that she's also had something done around her eyes (just a tiny bit). She looks like she's had her cheek bones redefined, and even though she's still got the big, round chin, her jawline looks a bit different too. Becca said it looked like she's had her boobs done, especially since she lost so much weight and they stayed the same size, but I don't know if I agree. She always had big breasts.

It's honestly just disappointing. I never bought into that "Ashlee Simpson is just a normal girl who acts like one of the guys and likes to be rough and honest" crap; I mean, she did have her own reality show, which may not be the mark of a normal person. But I did think she was just gorgeous and sexy. And I admit, one thing I really like on women is a certain type of large nose (see Jessica Simpson, Anneliese Van Der Pol, or Jewel for the type I really like). And now she's just not Ashlee Simpson anymore.

I don't know. She had one surprisingly great pop album that I still enjoy, but otherwise she's off my radar. Posted by Picasa

I Don't Understand Why People Say Tom Cruise Is Gay

Because that's the most heterosexual thing I've ever seen. And so is his filmography; Top Gun and Interview with the Vampire and Eyes Wide Shut are especially three of the least homoerotic movies ever made. And his character in Magnolia doesn't come across as closeted in the least. Really, what are you people talking about? Gay people aren't allowed to be Scientologists, remember? I mean, it's not like anything untoward was happening when L. Ron Hubbard was sailing international waters with all of those ten-year-old boys. I mean, this is Tom Cruise, the guy who sues everyone who even hints that he might be a tad lavender. Isn't aggressively protesting and trying to silence every source that suggests something the teensiest bit Jeffrey is going on the sign of a man who wants us to know the truth? The flaming, fabulous truth? Posted by Picasa

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Dear Nicole Richie,

I just caught some clips of you on The Tyra Banks Show. You know, the one where you whined about how bad people are making you feel for being (allegedly) anorexic? I caught the part where you said that you feel bad and that you wish people would leave you alone and that you think you're being treated unfairly because "no one makes fun of fat people." Really? No one? I guess that would come as news to someone like, say, Raven-Symone. I see people making fun of her for being heavy all the time (which sucks, because she's actually got curves and fat like a woman's supposed to have, and doesn't look like a little boy turned into jerky, like you do). That would probably come as news to Kelly Clarkson too; I mean, they wouldn't even market her energy drink because they said she was too fat. Huh, another woman who's sexier than you'll ever be.

I guess it comes as a surprise to me too. I mean, being the fat kid in school, I guess I'm surprised that I misinterpreted all of those people who made fun of me from fourth grade to twelfth grade for being overweight. Maybe they were just trying to encourage me, while reserving their biggest ire for the skinny people. If only I had known, my self-esteem problems might have turned out differently. But whatever.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the heads up on that one. I guess your implied point is right; we should be making fun of fat people. I mean, what can we really do except, you know, walk more than a couple of feet without using up all our energy, or survive the winters if things get too cold. And I really, really hope you don't die of your anorexia and constant drug use. I mean, you know, I assume.

I do, however, hope you get hit by a bus. And dragged for three blocks. But I don't want to be inflammatory. I'm not saying I want you dead.

Merely that I would celebrate your violent death.

SamuraiFrog Posted by Picasa